Dead. That’s what happened to the only thing I tried to grow when my husband and I lived in Phoenix. It was a single rosemary plant that I put outside on our balcony one day, and it surrendered its life force to the blazing sun within minutes. Although our neighborhood was alive with palms and citrus trees and vibrant flowers almost year round, it shouldn’t have been. Little grows in Phoenix naturally. Our apartment complex looked like a desert oasis, but only because of teams of professional gardeners.

We moved back to Michigan and bought a house two years after that, and I was delighted when the snow melted and we found that the previous owners had made a raised vegetable bed in the best spot in the yard. It was time to grow things. All the things. I made scale drawings of the area, read about a dozen gardening books, and made the most intricate spreadsheet. You reap what you sow, and I was sowing perfection.

But the thing about gardening is this: there is a certain amount of it that you just can’t control. That’s frustrating for a perfectionist like me. I long for control; it’s how I get the results I want. But after the planning and measuring and careful digging and tender planting, after you enclose a seed in its dark little chamber, there is almost nothing you can do. What’s happening is happening where you can’t see it, and all you can do is wait, keeping the faith.

Sometimes you plant the seeds and do everything the way you always do and nothing happens. Maybe the seed was bad, or maybe the little terrorist squirrel ate it, or maybe the nights were just a bit too cold for a bit too long. We’ve learned from other gardeners that sometimes things that have always worked just stop working, and sometimes things that have never worked before suddenly, miraculously, do work. Gardening is half hard work, half mystery.

That first year we planted peas and lettuce and tomatoes, which did well. And we planted radishes and beans and red peppers, which did not. Dead.

Every year we get better, and more things grow, but some things don’t. Still, I’ve noticed that I’ve come to think of gardening as a lifelong hobby, something I might just be really good at by the time I die, rather than as something I have to perfect right at this moment. So in that way it’s the perfect antidote to my perfectionism, and it has carried over into my work and studies and relationships. I don’t have to carry on a conversation with the perfect blend of grace and humor and depth this time, because conversation is a lifelong art. At work, I don’t always have to make the right decision about whether to meet a deadline or have a higher quality product, because that kind of judgment takes years to develop.

Now, when I’m in the garden killing weeds and protecting my darling seedlings, I think about killing my spirit of perfectionism too —dead—because, like the weeds and the seedlings, if you don’t kill it, it will eventually kill you—or at least steal your joy and your patience and your love, which is very nearly the same thing. Better to put in time and love because of the sheer joy of it, and then accept whatever the harvest is with gratitude.

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Erin Martinsen

Erin is a loyal Midwesterner, born and raised in Kansas and currently living in Michigan. She and her husband Philip enjoy caring for any living thing, and their current responsibilities include two cats and a large garden full of vegetables. When she’s not gardening, Erin is usually either working as a copyeditor or studying for her master’s in theology—but her first loves are spending time with family and reading good books. And also cats. Erin and her husband blog about life and literature at http://humandramathing.com/

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